Effectively redundant from the time of the Reformation in 1560, Elgin Cathedral – this magnificent sandstone ruin – was little used during the next 100 years and was virtually abandoned thereafter.
Gradually parts of the structure collapsed as a result of unchecked decay, and it was not until the early 19th century that Elgin Cathedral received the respect it deserved as a fine piece of medieval architecture.
The first church was erected on this site during the early part of the 13th century although, possibly as a result of a fire, this was extensively re-built and enlarged towards the end of that century. The building suffered again in 1390 when the ‘Wolf of Badenoch‘ burnt the cathedral in rage at the church and the Bishop of Moray.
Now standing as one of the most glorious ruins in Scotland it is quite unbelievable to think that this vast church, so ornately decorated with such skill, was in use for a mere three centuries. Such an imposing entrance through the processional doorway, flanked by the massive west towers, still commands the visitor to enter and explore the remains of this most noble house of God.
Sadly, nothing substantial has survived of the nave apart from a pair of lancet windows that formerly lit one of the south aisle chapels.
The most complete section of the first church is the external wall of the south transept, which presents a busy picture of slender pointed windows, a curious oval window above a gabled doorway, and a higher level of round-headed windows. Unquestionably the most splendid remains of Elgin Cathedral are those at the east end of the church where decorative moulding, traceried windows, blind arcading, and a virtually complete clerestory can be seen in their full glory. Unusual buttress towers with embellished pinnacles contain the east gable arrangement of a large rose window set above two levels of lancets.
Internally some richly decorated tombs and carved effigys remain in the vaulted choir chapels. Yet even more beautiful is the 15th century octagonal Chapter House, with its large traceried windows and it’s magnificent vaulted ceiling that springs from a central clustered column. Apart from the monastic Chapter House at Incholm Abbey, this eight-sided spectacle at Elgin Cathedral is unique in Scotland.
Located on the edge of the town center, just a few miles inland from the Moray coast, and resting beside the River Lossie, these exquisite ruins are certainly a highlight of this area. Many thanks are due to the forward thinking and sheer hard work of that 19th century cobbler who began to re-discover the lost beauty of this cathedral.
Elgin Cathedral is managed by Historic Scotland – plan your visit.